The old drive-in theater, a place where drama unfolded outdoors, on a big screen, in a former cattle pasture sprinkled with strange- looking metal boxes on wooden posts. The old drive-in theater. This was a place where summer nights were filled with romance, comedy and drama. Oh yes, and there were movies too.
Hot summer nights with no air-conditioning other than the fresh air coming through the front and back windows of the car. You had to have your window open, at least a crack, so you could hang the speaker box on the inside of the car. The mosquitoes buzzing around your head may have interfered a little bit, but the voices depicting drama and comedy on the big screen came through on that little, static-filled box hanging on the window. Nothing really mattered while you were at the Sunset. It was Saturday night, time for the movie or the “other” stuff that stories are made from.
These were the days of the Clint Eastwood classics, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and A Fistful of Dollars or James Bond movies, or Dean Martin as Matt Helm, or Omar Shariff as Dr. Zhivago. There were all the Hell’s Angel’s and Mary Jane (marijuana) movies, and yes, all those Elvis movies.
The drive-in was a perfect set-up for double-features, double dates, triple dates or a girls’ night out. The gravel road leading to the ticket gate was a bit dusty as the stream of cars and trucks rolled in. Individual admission was less than a dollar, and there were nights when a whole carload could get in for a buck. Did any of you sneak into the theater in the trunk of a car? How could there not be a comedy of errors with this scenario?
I remember a particular “dollar night” when a kid borrowed his dad’s gravel truck and with that load of kids, well, the drive-in filled up pretty fast. That big old truck stirred up lots of dust before it settled in one spot. My sister was one of those in the back of the truck, yet my father would never know.
My sister and I sometimes went on double dates together. If we weren’t together we would plan and plot so we’d get home at the same time and have the same “story” for dad at breakfast the following morning. You know, details as to what the movie was about and what time the double-feature got over, so we both had the same excuse as to why we got home when we did (rest assured, we always made curfew).
Intermission at the drive-in theater was a blur of social activity. The lines for popcorn at the concession stand were long, and the girl’s bathroom was stuffed with gossip and giggling. The girl’s bathroom, where you discussed how your date was going, who was on a blind date, who was going with whom and who had just “broken up.” Romance was rampant at the drive-in theater. Oh, the summer romances at the drive-in theater. Every little thing is big when you’re 16 years old. Picturing what we thought was drama was most likely comedy in many respects. Things we thought we were getting away with, well, our parents seemed to know the real story anyway. My very first drive-in movie was as a little girl lucky enough to go “out” with my older sister and her boyfriend. I couldn’t have been much older than 9 or 10. My other sister and I weren’t so much into watching the movie as we were about whether our older sister’s boyfriend would put his arm around her and kiss her. I don’t remember much about the movie, but I do remember lots of giggling by two little girls in the back seat when he did slip his arm around her shoulder… and my sister turning around and “shushing” us, but winking at the same time. Yup, I loved drive-in movies from the very first time I went.
Carefree, simple times… the drama that unfolded at the old Sunset Drive-In seems like only yesterday. I even remember a few of the movies.
*Back in the ‘50s, America’s heyday of outdoor cinemas, Minnesota was home to nearly 80 drive-in theaters, 92 percent of which have since gone dark or been demolished. WCCO News recently featured the Long Drive-In Theater of Long Prairie in Todd County as the “Best Drive-In Theater in Minnesota” in its “Best of Minnesota” series. The Long Drive-In is one of six in Minnesota still in operation, including the Starlite in Litchfield, the Sky-Vu in Warren, the Verne in Luverne, Vali-Hi in Lake Elmo and Champions in Elko.